web analytics
October 25, 2014 / 1 Heshvan, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
Meir Panim with Soldiers 5774 Roundup: Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.



Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

How Jewish Is Jewish History?

jews

Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

Once we asked, “Who is a Jew?” Now the big question is, “What is Jewish History?” Both questions are largely academic and typical of a particular mindset that desires to know exactly how to characterize human affairs and where other human beings fit it. It is a product of Western philosophical culture, modern nationalism, and indeed scientific categorization.

I don’t for the life of me understand why it has taken me so long to read Moshe Rosman’s excellent How Jewish is Jewish History? (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization). I must have been sleepwalking, for it is a most important and essential book for anyone interested in Jewish affairs. It is an overview of how academic theories of modernism are changing and have changed perceptions. It is a vital analysis of how many different approaches to Jewish history there are.

Even the ancillary issue of when does “modern Jewish history” begin is the subject of constant debate and modification. Was it the French Revolution? The American Revolution? Napoleon? The Haskalah, the Enlightenment? Mercantilism? The exile from Iberia? The rise of nationalism? The collapse of autonomous Jewish life in Poland? The first mass migration to Israel under Yehuda Hachasid? Does it really make any serious difference?

It all confirms what we inside have always known. You can define neither Jews nor Judaism in a way that will satisfy all its various elements. What is the difference between a “people” and a “nation”? Is Judaism an “ethnic culture” a “religious culture” or neither? Jean-Paul Sartre thought it was anyone who others think is Jewish. Homi Bhabha thinks it is any group that suffers as a result of imperialist domination.

Modern theory is right to try to avoid “The Simple Solution”, “The Grand Scheme”, or the “Neat Title”, whether it is “The End of History” or “The Clash of Civilizations”. They might sell books, but they get just as much wrong as right. We do know that modernism has freed us to think more as individuals than as members of established ideologies. The internet in all its varieties has, for better and worse, enabled more of us to “pursue our own ideas and goals”. Political, religious, and social groups try to control and dominate, but the genius of mankind is its ability to resist automatonism and to allow us to be ourselves as we define it. We might call it existentialism or phenomenology, but the fact is that just as much as some humans need to lose themselves in the comforting but suffocating embrace of societies, communities, and ghettos, many others resist these constrictions. There are plusses and minuses in both, and it would be wrong to say only one is right and all the others wrong. But that sadly is precisely what fundamentalism does.

Rosman’s book highlights the achievements, advances, and the limitations of academia. Old models are challenged and superseded, and the new models in turn will face revisionism. It is a world in which great minds toil and produce theories, defend them with aggression and determination, devote passion and animosity to demolishing competition, and invariably end up being as doctrinaire, unreasonable, and closed-minded as the worst anti-academic fanatics. Those of you who saw that brilliant Israeli film Footnote know exactly how it works on the academic shop floor. It is hard to find a more competitive and cutthroat atmosphere outside of a Marxist coven. It makes rabbinic conflict look positively benign, and it explains why so much antagonism towards Israel comes from universities.

Rosman raises all the fascinating issues. Can Jewish history only be about Jews? What about their relationship, for better and worse, with their host societies? Is an English Jew more English or more Jewish than a French Jew? Is an American Jew more comfortable with other Americans or with other Jews? Is a Charedi Jew more at home with a Salafist Muslim or a secular Jew? Is a liberal Jewish female more at home with other feminists?

About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

One Response to “How Jewish Is Jewish History?”

  1. Carlos Font says:

    Holy smokes! Three great articlles in one issue. Thank you, Mr. Rosen, for this one. It really defines the present situation. When asked by an academic and/or a fundamentalist about my beliefs I simply say that I am a Conservative Judeo- Christian Catholic and Jesuit wanna-be. You should see their faces.

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Do you know where your vegetables grow?
Not So Kosher Shemittah L’Mehadrin
Latest Indepth Stories
Eller-102414-Cart

I had to hire a babysitter so that I could go shopping or have someone come with me to push Caroline in her wheelchair.

Bills to restore the balance of power in Israel will be fought by the not-so-judicial left.

Widespread agreement in Israel opposing Palestinian diplomatic warfare, commonly called “lawfare.”

Chaye Zisel Braun

Arab terrorism against Jews and the State of Israel is not something we should be “calm” about.

Peace Now Chairman Yariv Oppenheimer

The Israeli left, led by tenured academics, endorses pretty much anything harmful to its own country

We were devastated: The exploitation of our father’s murder as a vehicle for political commentary.

Judea and Samaria (Yesha) have been governed by the IDF and not officially under Israeli sovereignty

While not all criticism of Israel stemmed from anti-Semitism, Podhoretz contends the level of animosity towards Israel rises exponentially the farther left one moved along the spectrum.

n past decades, Oman has struck a diplomatic balance between Saudi Arabia, the West, and Iran.

The Torah scroll which my family donated will ride aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier

The Jewish Press endorses the reelection of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His record as governor these past four years offers eloquent testimony to the experience and vision he has to lead the Empire State for the next four years.

I think Seth Lipsky is amazing, but it just drives home the point that newspapers have a lot of moving parts.

Myth #1: It is easy to be a B’nai Noach. It is extraordinarily hard to be a B’nai Noach.

The question of anti-Semitism in Europe today is truly tied to the issue of immigration.

Polls indicate that the Palestinians are much more against a two state solution than the Israelis.

More Articles from Jeremy Rosen
putin napoleon

Obama’s incompetence, the way his naive worldview and credulity have made a fool of him, are equally frightening

Rashid Khalidi

The Ramaz School was wrong to refuse to allow Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian apologist, to speak to its senior students.

Imagine you take your family somewhere where there is no such thing as a day off.

Pascal’s famous wager was that it makes sense to bet on God.

The Talmud (Eiruvin 96a) mentions that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, wore Tefilin and no one objected.

We’ve known that you can define neither Jews nor Judaism in a way that will satisfy all its various elements.

The religious world needs to fight back constructively.

There is a dichotomy between personal, private prayer and public communal prayer.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/how-jewish-is-jewish-history/2014/02/02/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: